Akai S01 Sampler
The unheralded arrival of Akai's £699 S01 brings quality 16-bit sampling to its widest potential market yet. Derek Johnson looks at a landmark of sampling affordability.
Akai are no strangers to the concept of affordable sampling, but it's been some years since they've produced anything that makes as strong a statement with its price as the S01. The S612, launched in 1985, was a landmark of sampling affordability much as the S01 is now. Since then, Akai machines such as the S900, S1000 and S1100 have successively set studio standards. So why is the new S01 — so hot that we weren't even able to bring you news of it last month — so significant? Basically, it is a return to Akai's sampling roots: affordable, easy-to-use sampling — but with the crucial difference that its ground-breaking price has forced no compromise in its 16-bit sound quality. Having said this, the new machine offers only one, fixed, sampling rate of 32kHz, but it comes fitted with a generous (at this price) 15.625 seconds of sample memory, which can be divided, in any way you choose, between eight sample slots. It is multi-timbral (ie. different samples will respond to different MIDI channels) after a fashion, but there are limitations, and multi-sampling is also possible. Operationally the S01 has been designed to be idiot-proof, with the majority of functions obvious from the front panel. It has also been designed to appeal to a wide range of users, and is priced accordingly — would anyone these days consider a retail price under £700 expensive?
Most current samplers offer facilities for adding extra memory at a later date, and I am pleased to say that, in addition to its other advantages, the S01 hasn't been left out in the cold on this one; the EXM01 upgrade doubles the available memory. The only difference to the user (apart from lots of memory) is that certain parameters (Trim and Loop for example) will have their upper limits raised. All other functions are unchanged.
The S01 adopts the now-familiar Akai beige colour scheme, and in looks is somewhat reminiscent of the S900, or even the Roland S750, housed in a similar 2U high rack-mounting package which is rather deeper, front to back, than many rackmount units. Internally, the stripped down sampling operation reminds one of Akai's first stab at sampling, the S612; ease of use rather than sophistication is what you'll find here, although in terms of sound quality and memory capacity the S01 is definitely a child of the '90s. In order to keep life simple and affordable, several compromises have been made. Gone is the LCD, replaced by a 3-character LED display and, although multi-timbral, the S01 sports a single, mono output, duplicated on front and rear. The display itself is informative for an LED, with a mixture of numeric and abbreviated alphabetic cues as to what function is currently being handled.
The button count is refreshingly low: each of the eight sample banks has its own selection button. These are in a row across the bottom, and at the start of the row is the record button. Above the disk drive are the remaining three buttons, labelled Edit (no prizes for figuring out what that does) and the cursor right and cursor down buttons.
Across the middle of the unit is a printed matrix of Parameters; this consists of seven main headings across and up to four sub-headings down, each with an attendent LED. All but a few functions are actually printed in the matrix, and the current function is indicated by the 'cursor' position — ie. which LED is lit up. You move the position of the lit LED, to select new functions, with the Down and Left cursor keys — pressing Left then Down moves the 'cursor' right, and Down then Left equals up. Don't worry — it's much easier to do than explain.
Apart from the two output connectors, there is a sample input jack on the front, as well as a headphones socket, and a footswitch socket at the rear. The latter lets you trigger the sample in Bank 1 with a footswitch. The MIDI connections are a little more sophisticated than usual: in addition to the Out and Thru, there are two MIDI Ins, switchable on the front panel. This allows you to easily switch between controlling the sampler from, say, a master keyboard and a sequencer.
Experienced sampler users will have no trouble diving in and getting the S01 to strut its stuff; the beauty of Akai's new machine, however, is that everyone else is going to find it a breeze as well. Those who want to get into sampling but are not conversant with current technology should check out the S01 immediately/, even those unused to hi-tech equipment could come to terms with it very quickly. The operating system is very immediate, and in spite of the fact that I was provided with a pre-production version, I can see that the manual will be very useful when completed.
The S01's sampling procedure is straightforward. Press the Record button, select a sample Bank, set the input sensitivity (-52dBm for mics or electric guitar or -12dBm for line level sources), audition the source to be recorded, set the overall level and press record again to sample. You can set a trigger level, so that sampling will only happen when signal above the trigger level is present; for most purposes, this is instantaneous. A sample can be checked immediately by pressing its Bank button, which plays the sample without the need for a keyboard, or by playing C3 on your keyboard, if connected. In case you were wondering about setting levels, the vertical line of LEDs to the left of the editing matrix cleverly doubles as a recording level meter during sampling — nice lateral thinking from someone on the design team.
To do anything apart from play and sample with the S01 you'll need to press the Edit button. You can then 'scroll' through the editing options with the Cursor right button — follow the LED at the top of each column. The options are Trim, Loop, Level, Pitch, MIDI, Setup and Disk. Each has up to four sub-functions, and these are chosen with the Cursor Down button (follow those LEDs again).
Under Trim, you'll find all you need to get rid of unwanted sections of a sample, such as silence at the beginning or unwanted noise at the end. Select a rough start point, fine tune it, and then select a coarse and fine end point. This is really accomplished by ear; though numbers do appear in the LED display, they are of virtually no use. Worry not, however, since working by ear is easy and in my experience often produces better results than looking at a waveform display. Trimming the unwanted sections is a matter of Pressing the Record key and the Bank key for the sample you want trimmed (you find that in the manual, not the front panel).
Next up is Loop, and again you can choose a rough Loop and fine tune it; unfortunately, the limitations of the display mean this is also a job for your ears. Luckily, it seems to be quite an easy job to get reasonable and often good loops, even for the more difficult instrument sounds. You can also turn the loop off, and set up mono triggering under this heading — mono triggering simply means that a sample's playback will be cut off when it is triggered again. The alternative would be the sample becoming layered with itself at each successive trigger, which is not always desirable — when playing back a breakbeat, for example.
Samples can be reversed by swapping the start and end points; if a sample has a length of 50, choose a start point of 50 and an end point of 0, and the sample plays backwards. For Trimming and Looping purposes, the value range for start and end points is 499,999. The display handles this by allocating the 499 to the coarse setting and the 999 to the fine setting. Double these figures when installing the memory upgrade.
The Level heading (excuse the pun) covers the overall level of a sample, a Release parameter, and Velocity switch — a sample can either respond to velocity or not. The Release parameter is as close as the S01 gets to an envelope, but it's very useful all the same — set it to 100, and provided the sample is looped, it initially appears to play on forever after you lift your fingers, though it is really a rather long and glorious fade. At 99, it has a nice long fade without being extreme. Tuning and transposing samples is available under under the Pitch set of parameters, and pitch bend range is also set here. MIDI parameters include high and low key range, Program number and MIDI channel. Several (or all) Banks (ie. samples) can be assigned the same MIDI channel and Program number, which allows you to map several multi-samples across the keyboard, and treat them as one sound or patch. This will take a little ingenuity on your part, since there are only eight samples, but if all you need are a bass, snare and hi-hat for a kit (assigned to one MIDI channel and Program), a bass sound (could be a single Bank/sample), and perhaps a two or three sample multi-sampled string part, you could manage. Preparation is the name of the game. If you want to keep life simple you can ignore the Program number parameter entirely; you can switch off reception of program change messages, and each Bank will respond on its specified MIDI channel. If you choose to use program change messages, if you assign more than one Bank to the same MIDI channel and give them different Program numbers, they will no longer be layered — instead, you can switch between them with the appropriate program change messages. Any program change numbers that are not assigned to Banks will simply be ignored.
Setup is next, and includes a global transpose, a master tune, and a global program change channel. Last of all is the Disk operation section, with save, load, delete and format options.
The disk drive is capable of formatting and using both double density and high density 3.5" floppies. Once formatted, you can save and load individual samples or complete files of samples and parameters (called an ALL file). Due to the limitations of the display, samples and ALL files cannot be named, so it's down to you and pen and paper to keep track of your work. The manual contains a blank sound library sheet for you to photocopy. I'd advise you to do so, and also label ail your disks thoroughly; once you've built any kind of a decent library you simply won't know what's on a disk unless it's labelled. Building up that library shouldn't be too hard, as Akai will soon have 250 S01 disks available for copying free of charge at Akai's head office and selected Akai dealers, and the S01 is partly compatible with other Akai samplers. You can read samples — but only samples, not Program data — from S1000, S1100, S950 or S900 disks by simply popping the disk in the drive, selecting a sample and loading it. Note that these other machines can record samples at rates other than 32kHz, and that these samples will be transposed once loaded into the S01. Akai have thoughtfully provided tables at the back of the manual that take all the effort out of the retuning of samples recorded at different sampling rates.
An additional problem with other sample formats is that certain loop functions not available on the S01 will often cause an odd bit of noise to appear at the end of a sample; the problem is solved simply by trimming the noise from the end of the sample. I experienced the problem as a several octave leap in pitch at the end of a sample. One last hiccup occurs only when using S900/S950 disks; there is no conversion as such from 12-bit to 16-bit, so some sounds may not sound quite as good as on the original sampler, although for the most part the result is fine.
MIDI Sample Dump Standard is supported — although it wasn't working on the pre-production model I tested, an enquiry to Akai Central brought an assurance that all will be well with production models. Transmission of samples involves a series of arcane button pushes and knob twirls, but it's still relatively simple, and well explained in the manual. The S01 will also respond to a dump request from an external device. Loading a sample into the S01 is simply a matter of sending the sample to the Akai. Because it is a fixed rate machine, any non-32kHz samples will have to be adjusted, using the Transpose and Sample Tune functions, to bring them to correct pitch. To this end, refer to the aforementioned efforts included at the end of the manual, and you won't even need to get your calculator out. Thanks, Akai.
As the review has thus far implied (hopefully), using the S01 is a piece of cake. To make it obvious to beginners, an Operation Guide Disk is supplied, which contains five different kinds of ALL file; the manual then talks the user slowly through what the different files contain, and what they mean in real life; they also serve as templates for your own samples. For example, there is a multi-timbral file, with eight samples on eight different MIDI channels, a multi-sample, template, and so on. All this contributes to the general air of simplicity. In addition, there are a handful of disks supplied with the S01, including a collection of pad-type sounds, break beats and a whole lot of sound effects, including everything you need to create your own game show — laughs, audience noise, buzzers and all!
It's cheap and it's easy to use; but this wouldn't be enough if the sound wasn't up to much. Sigh of relief: it sounds great. It's hard not to compare it to other samplers, but such comparisons would not be relevant. This is, after all, a fixed rate machine, with none of the clever tricks offered by machines costing two or three times the asking price of the S01. Samples come back pretty much as clear as the source; material with a lot of important top end energy such as cymbals, may suffer due to the restricted bandwidth (a sampling rate of 32kHz means a top limit of 16kHz), but in practice, subjectively, there isn't a lot in it. The only real problem is that playing samples an octave or more away from their sampled pitch does introduce unwanted artefacts — this is more noticeable on snatched breaks of music, but it does leave some simple, pad-like musical sounds a little lacking in power at either extreme.
Already, it is possible to discern a character for samples taken with the S01, which is surprising since there is no filtering and no comprehensive enveloping. Again, this could be due to the slightly curtailed top end, but for me the S01 has quite a warm sound.
At £699 for the S01, Akai have provided us with the sampling bargain of recent years. Sure, I can think of loads of facilities that should have been implemented, but I'm certain that adding each of those facilities would have steadily increased the final asking price. As it is, quality sampling has never been more accessible or affordable. The potential market for the S01 is wide, including musicians on a budget who want to add a sampler without breaking the bank, and DJs and remixers who see the new technology being exploited elsewhere in their business but can't justify the expense or dread the learning curve. The latter won't even need a keyboard, since all you need to do to trigger samples is to hit the Bank buttons on the front panel. I would tentatively suggest that, similarly, the S01 could find a niche in the film and video, and possibly radio markets, although the limited bandwidth may be a stumbling block here — an expanded S01 will hold over 31 seconds of reasonable quality jingles, albeit only eight at a time. Perhaps community and hospital radio would find it an attractive proposition.
There are certainly bargains on the secondhand market (including Akai's old S700), but they won't be 16-bit, they won't have this much memory, or necessarily have immediate compatibility with the S1000s and S1100s you'll find in so many studios — S01 disks can be loaded into both these machines.
There are more sophisticated samplers out there — not least Akai's own upmarket machines — but, naturally, they're much more costly. In my opinion, for many purposes (and there are numerous sampler users who never stretch their expensive machines to anywhere near the limits of their capabilities) the S01 is quite sufficient in terms of facilities, and it delivers the sound quality that its 16-bit architecture promises. No matter how techno-shy you might be, if you've ever wanted to add sampling to your setup, whether that be for home entertainment, home studio, live keyboard rig or DJ setup, the introduction of the S01 removes the last barriers from joining the sampling bandwagon: price, accessibility and sound are here balanced in a very attractive equation.
Akai S01 £699 inc VAT.
Akai UK, (Contact Details).
Review by Derek Johnson
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